What I Should Like to Tell June Graduates

A manuscript found in the Tarbell archives. It is the draft version of a commencement address for Allegheny College class of 1913.

Men and women have always set up life-marks much as they have land-marks and sea-marks. The school Commencement is one of these boundary stones. Thousands of girls will reach it this june. They will all receive parchments to prove it and yet they will all be the same girls the morning after as the morning before. They will act no differently, feel no differently. Is Commencement then a purely artificial and arbitrary life point?

Artificial enough, yet it marks the point where certain changes are expected to begin.Possibly the strongest expectation – certainly the most important one is that self-direction shall henceforth play a greater part in the girl’s life than it ever has before.

Most girls who reach the graduating point, whether it be in High School, Seminary or College, have made their journey at the suggestion and under the direction of others. Girls are “sent” to school and that applies to all grades. True, large numbers go because other girls are going – but that too, is being sent – sent by public opinion. The girl makes her trip from low to higher grades under direction – subjects – hours – methods – are selected for her.

But with the coming of the diploma there is a change both in her attitude and that of others. Life is “put up” to her as we say. She must select, direct, decide as never before. At the present time this self-direction is both expected of and desired by the girl. It is probable that this expectation will increase instead of decrease for it is certainly true that we are learning that girls can direct their lives to a degree formerly unbelieved.

Those of us who have tried self-direction know something of its difficulties – something of the enticing by-paths which entered lead the traveller far from their pleasant places into rough fields and wild hill-lands where there are no trails only strange, uninhabited, bewildering wastes and forests. True, many find the way again but they enter often far behind the point they left and sometimes so poor and bitter from their hardships that they never are able to follow it with hope or joy.

They did not believe in the way. The girl is an opportunist. She knows what she wants today and she has little or no faith that there is much ahead. She fears the years. She does not see that they can bring a succession of fresh experiences, of peculiar joys and that each period for its fullness and gladness and usefulness depends on the way the former periods have been handled. The average girl attacks life as if it would all be over by the time she was twenty-five. If she is going to get anything out of life it must be “while she is young”. Youth is all she really counts on.

It is not surprising. The world is full of middle aged and elderly women who sigh for youth and repeat that for them all is over. Their daughters hear and accept this melancholy philosophy. It is logical and reasonable that if what they hear is true, they should get what they can at the moment. If one is to be so dreary later on, one certainly should be gay today.

But it isn’t so.

Each period of life offers the unexpected. It is a fresh chest of treasures. But the treasures are only visible and usable by those who have seen and used the content of the chests which belong to earlier periods.

To believe in the future and sense the relation of Today to it is as good a happiness insurance policy as any of us can take out. It requires imagination however to believe in the need of any kind of insurance. Many a man has lost his home and his business because he could not see his possessions burning down.

Imagination is the only key to the future. Without it none exists – with it all things are possible. We are rarely trained to understand the relationship of imagination to daily life and toil. We learn about it in a book and regard it either as another bewildering and intangible subject having nothing to do with us, or as something which belongs exclusively to poets. It is that which creates. We are told, and we usually believe that it creates something out of nothing. There are many of us who grow up with that idea and who if we have imagination try to live by creating something out of nothing. It is never a success.

Nothing comes from the mind or heart which has not gone in. What we get out depends on the ideas, the impressions, the sensations we have collected. It is the business of the imagination to reproduce for us all that which consciously and unconsciously we have been gathering. Whether we have a creative imagination or not depends upon whether we can combine into what the psychologists call “new wholes” that in our minds which the imagination has called up. On the ability to do that depends largely what we are going to get out of life and labor.

It is this ability that enables us to look ahead and see how long is life and how full it may be. It also enables us to see how much we may miss if, for the sake of excitement at a dull point in the road, we insist on burning down a bridge which is our only way over and which it will take years to rebuild.

The greatest service of the imagination to the average girl is saving her from an imitative life. It is a fatal and ugly mistake this of shaping ourselves after other people, but we do it constantly. Because Anne has had a career as a painter we should have one – because Jane found a husband on ship board, we look there. A sound working imagination inspires a healthy contempt for copy-book lives. If we only had as young girls as much interest and good sense about life as about looks we would save ourselves many a mistake.

I am always deeply interested in hearing a group of healthy “nice” girls talk about their “looks”. They are charmingly frank about their good and bad points. They take a real pride in “the beauty” of their flock – that is they do as long as she is neither vain nor selfish. When she becomes either – and the one generally means both – they are frankly contemptuous and sometimes as frankly malicious. She is “spoiled” for them. It is part of their youthful good sense that even beauty cannot permanently withstand the inroads of vanity and selfishness.

They have quite as out-spoken an admiration of a good point in a plain girl – of good teeth, silky hair – clear complexion, a well-poised head – a shapely form and they are generous in admiring it. Girls soon learn how to make the most of a good point, to conceal or redeem a bad one. Would that we as generally applied as much imagination to the points of our lives. We each possess a little cluster of possibilities – of handicaps. It is in turning these over, thoughtfully studying how the possibilities may be developed and combined – the handicaps cut out that an individual original life is made, and original work is done. I constantly hear girls say, “I am going to do as so-and-so has done: – be a social worker; be an editor – be a writer.” It is as if she would say, “I am going to be a blonde” when her hair and eyes are black and her skin olive. True, if the lights are right , she may by a well-made wig and the skillful use of powder and rouge look like a blonde – to those who are far enough away – and have no opera glasses. But she will never be a blonde.

Nor never will she be an editor if she merely copies what she sees another doing – or what she thinks she is doing. Editing is more than a series of mechanical operations. It depends on a natural instinct or taste – as much as blonde hair depends on its peculiar pigment. It requires peculiar gifts or faculties and special training and experience. The girl may have the natural equipment and she may be capable of giving herself the training. To decide – and it is she who must decide – she must study editing as it is done today, form an intelligent picture or mould of it – study herself and try to fit herself into the mould she has constructed. Unless she can see herself doing this or that that the profession requires, she should let it alone. Unless she can see herself doing new things within the mould – things peculiar to herself – she should let it alone. And this applies to all trades and professions which are intelligently and consciously selected.

It applies to Life. Here is a life which attracts us for its energy, beauty, and usefulness. We visualize it, analyze it. We would like to imitate it but we have neither the opportunities or the qualities of the person we admire. What is it after all we want! It is the results, we are after – the respect, the love, the service. We cannot get them by coping any individual. We may get them by using our own qualities and working out our own combination with what we have in our hand. That is making a life of our own and it is the only way to make one of our own.

There is no help the girl who will be beginning self-direction this June will need as much as that of her own imagination. Summon it to work. Train it – force it to reproduce for you what is in your mind, not somebody else’s mind. Call upon it for fresh combinations of your qualities – your ideas – your possibilities. Demand honesty from it. Do not let it deceive you. Test all it offers by your good sense – your knowledge of yourself and of your situation. Do this and depend upon it – you will find both the work and the life which belong to you.

—by Ida M. Tarbell